Danica and more highlight upcoming test
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- From Dancing with the Cars to Danica with the Stars.
These are a few of the things we'll learn about as Sprint Cup drivers kick off the offseason dust Thursday with a three-day test at Daytona International Speedway.
While the main focus is to determine if changes the governing body made to the cars will eliminate -- or at least reduce -- the tandem drafting at restrictor plate tracks, many eyes will be on Danica Patrick as she makes her first laps in the No. 10 Cup car she'll drive part-time for Stewart Haas Racing.
This is the first step in Patrick's making the full-time jump from the IndyCar Series to NASCAR. She will drive her first full season in the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports after two part-time schedules. She will also attempt 10 Cup races for SHR with NASCAR's top stars.
She will make her Cup debut in the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 26.
"I am so excited about this season. I am going to be like the Honey Badger. I am going to take what I want,'' Patrick recently wrote on Twitter, referring to the Honey Badger video on YouTube of "The Most Fearless Animal on Earth.''
There may be more give than take, particularly initially. As we stay tuned for that, here's a non-Badger's take on five things we'll learn at the DIS test:
1. Patrick PirouetteThe transition from Nationwide to Cup won't really begin for Patrick until she gets to a non-plate track, where handling becomes an issue. Her only real test at DIS, a track so simple to maneuver that Dale Earnhardt Jr. says his mom could get around there, will be learning the draft and intricacies of being the pusher and pushee in the two-car dance.
Yes, that likely will continue.
Patrick also will begin developing a relationship with Greg Zipadelli, who moved from Joe Gibbs Racing to SHR's competition director and interim crew chief for the GoDaddy.com driver.
Otherwise, Patrick will find little significant difference between driving a Nationwide Series and Cup car around the 2.5-mile track as she makes the transition from stock car racing's minors to major leagues.
2. Tandem Two-StepRadiators have been reduced from a five-gallon capacity to two. The overflow tank has been shrunk to a capacity of half a gallon. The radiator inlet is closer to the front center bumper area. Springs are softer. The rear spoiler is shorter. The restrictor plate is 1/64th of an inch larger.
These are all the changes NASCAR mandated for the cars in an attempt to eliminate tandem racing that surveys show fans have become increasingly unhappy with.
The idea, particularly with the smaller radiator and overflow tank, is to prevent drivers from hooking up for an extended period because overheating will become an issue. The intent is to get back to the pack racing that made Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway unique to the circuit.
Based on the last test that implemented many of these ideas, the two-car draft will remain an issue to some degree as team engineers continue to find ways in the cooling system to circumvent NASCAR's changes. You can't blame them, knowing the cars are so much faster in pairs.
As Earnhardt said after a November test, "I know that they would like to have the pack racing we used to have. I will say, too, that NASCAR and the drivers are all in agreement that there is no possible way to get rid of the tandem drafting.''
3. Crew Chief ShuffleDarian Grubb, who helped Tony Stewart win his third title last season, has replaced Mike Ford with Denny Hamlin at Joe Gibbs Racing. Steve Addington has replaced Grubb at SHR. Shane Wilson has replaced Gil Martin with Kevin Harvick at Richard Childress Racing. Jason Ratcliff has replaced Zipadelli with Joey Logano at JGR. Chris Heroy has replaced Jim Pohlman with Juan Pablo Montoya at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing.
These are just a few of the crew chief swaps over the past few months. You may need a roster to see who's dancing with who these days.
Because drivers have been off for the most part since the season ended in November, this will be their first opportunity to work with their new pit box boss. Developing chemistry quickly will be key to get down the communication it takes to contend for a spot in the Chase.
4. Busch BalletThis will be the first opportunity to see whether Kurt Busch really is happy driving for little Phoenix Racing instead of powerful Penske Racing.
The 2004 Cup champion parted ways with Penske -- mutually agreed upon, both parties said (pause to clear throat) -- after a tumultuous 2011 season in which Busch finally admitted he needed outside help to deal with anger issues. He insists this fresh start with what has been a lower-tier team is what he needs to have fun again.
Team owner James Finch says he won't take anything off Busch, such as Roger Penske did for several years. He won't have to as long as he gives Busch fast cars.
As we've seen in the past, Busch isn't really happy unless he's contending for wins and a championship.
Stay Tuned Part II.
5. Fuel Injection FoxtrotFor most observers, telling the difference between fuel injection that makes its NASCAR debut in 2012 and the old carburetor system will be like a non-dancer differentiating between the Foxtrot and Waltz.
But for engineers, this is a chance to iron out any concerns regarding horsepower and fuel mileage. For drivers, this is a chance to get comfortable with any changes in accelerator feel that some have expressed.
Don't expect much drama here, though. Drivers will spend more time answering questions about having Patrick in Cup than having fuel injection under their hoods.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.
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